Guest column: In defense of queer-only spaces
A recent Slate piece misses the mark, and misrepresents the efforts of Madison's Queer Pressure collective.
Editor's note: A recent Slate piece argued that queer-only events should allow attendees to bring their non-queer partners. There's a Madison connection: In one section, it focuses on Madison-based events group Queer Pressure, and the article's author, Dana Sitar, is a former Madisonian. Given the growing role that queer-focused events—and other events focused around marginalized communities—play in Madison's nightlife, we wanted to hear a local response. We present here responses from two people: Queer Pressure co-founder Sarah Akawa (who is quoted in the Slate piece), and Hana Masri, a UW-Madison M.A. graduate who has researched queer nightlife and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Texas at Austin.
Sarah Akawa and Joey Bee: Why Madison needs queer-only spaces
Last November, a freelance journalist and former Madisonian named Dana Sitar reached out to us with some general questions about Queer Pressure, an organization we co-founded to expand Madison's offerings for queer nightlife. Sitar ended up citing our conversation in a piece for Slate in which she argued that bisexual people should be able to bring along their non-queer partners to queer-only spaces and events. We want to take the opportunity to respond to Sitar's piece and elaborate about Queer Pressure's effort to create a necessary place for queer people.
We created Queer Pressure in 2014 out of frustration at the lack of safer spaces that existed for queer people, especially those of us who experience multiple layers of oppression. At the time, many establishments (gay and otherwise) in Madison had dress codes and no-hiphop policies that isolated people of color and perpetuated the horrific anti-blackness that Madison is so famous for. A popular gay dance club in the city refused to implement gender-neutral bathrooms, even after multiple complaints of harassment perpetrated against trans individuals. Marketing for nightlife events bolstered fatphobia and body-policing. And as women, we experienced harassment in the majority of Madison's nightlife spaces. So, we set out to create an alternative.
As a collective, Queer Pressure values both separate, intentional spaces for people with shared lived experiences, and spaces open to everyone—which is why we organize both queer-only events, and events that are open to all. Sarah mentioned both to Sitar, but her piece for Slate mentions only the queer-only events.
One thing we seek to create with Queer Pressure are intentional separate spaces for people with a shared marginalized identity. For Queer Pressure's queer-only events, this is broadly anyone who identifies on the gender and sexuality spectrum that is not both straight and cisgender. Our desire to create occasional intentional separate spaces is partially influenced by my experience as a queer person of color.
I [Sarah] am a queer multi-racial Asian American person dating a white person. When I enter into spaces intended only for people of color, I do not bring my partner, because she is not a person of color. Though my white partner is not welcome, and though I am multi-racial, I do not feel that I need to "check my" white "half at the door." I do not feel excluded from these POC-only spaces because I value the rare occurrence and the purpose these spaces serve, building community across a shared lived experience. I appreciate these spaces and they have often been places of healing and growth. Someone might incorrectly argue that the exclusion of my white partner is "reverse racism" but let's remind ourselves that there is no such thing, because that's not how oppression works. Similarly, the exclusion of a straight partner in intentional separate spaces for queer people is not biphobic, nor is it oppressive against straight cisgender boyfriends.
Queer Pressure has always welcomed feedback, but at the end of the day, our priority is to create community spaces with and for queer people. Queer Pressure will never just hang a rainbow flag over our door as the author suggested. Not only is that insufficient for creating the spaces we need, but also that is simply not enough. Lastly, those places already exist in Madison.
Queer Pressure will never be divorced from our politics. We believe that queer liberation is bound in the liberation of all oppressed people. Straight, cis, white partners should understand why they are not our priority.
In the interests of transparency, Sarah Akawa's email exchange with Dana Sitar prior to the Slate piece can be read here.
Sarah Akawa is a DJ, party promoter, producer under the moniker of Saint Saunter, curator, and artist residing in Madison, Wisconsin. Current projects include: co-founder Queer Pressure Collective, Tell All Your Friends: Emo Night, bi-monthly art galleries at Black Locust Cafe, various VJ and DJ gigs. Past projects include Access Denied Library Takeover with the Madison Central Library, SWAY: a variety show featuring exclusively people of color with Carlos Gacharna, and She Said Party: a party for queer women & the people who love them with Tina She of God-des & She. They are interested in creating physical art spaces for people to lose themselves into an experience, incorporating digital media and free or cheap-ware.
Joey Bee is a queer, feminist DJ based in Madison and performing under the name DJ Boyfrrriend. She co-founded Queer Pressure with Sarah Akawa after several years of throwing Loose Cannon, an underground queer resistance dance party. In addition to pouring her heart into the Queer Pressure community, she also hosts DJ skillshare sessions open to people of all underrepresented identities.
Hana Masri: No, your straight partner shouldn't be included in queer-only spaces
The tagline of a recent article published in Slate asks, "Should bi people's straight partners be included in queer-only spaces?" In the piece, Sitar posits that queer-exclusive events, like some of those thrown by Madison's Queer Pressure, should be inclusive of attendees' straight partners. Sitar argues that a queer space that welcomes her, but not her cisgender, heterosexual partner is "no better than the rest of the world that blissfully ignores my queerness as long as I've got a man on my arm." Such a claim not only conflates lack of representation (if you can call it that, since bisexual people are quite explicitly welcomed at all of Queer Pressure's events) with the kind of violence that queer people face at the hands of the "rest of the world," it also irresponsibly misrepresents the history, role, and significance of Queer Pressure in the Madison LGBTQ scene.
Before I elaborate on this argument, it is worth noting that Queer Pressure throws myriad events, many of which are open to anyone who wishes to attend. This means that the non-queer partners of bi people are excluded from a tiny number of spaces, especially considering that such people enjoy the certainty that they will not be met with violence because of their gender or sexuality in any of the other venues in Madison. That said, Sitar's line of argumentation in this article is not unique; it exemplifies the growing, dangerous trend of equating the sometimes frustrating challenges of passing as straight (frustrations I also experience) with the visceral fear and physical danger of queer visibility in the wrong spaces. Queer Pressure exists, in large part, so that people can have some relief—however brief—from the latter. To suggest that one of the precious few events in Madison at which queer people can enjoy themselves in comparative safety should be fundamentally altered because some individuals want their partners to be involved in every single aspect of their lives is egregiously self-centered and ignorant of the larger contexts in which Queer Pressure exists.
Back in 2015, I conducted an ethnographic study on queer spaces in Madison for a graduate seminar at UW. As part of my research, I did extensive interviews with the organizers of Queer Pressure and attended many of their events. I also frequented some of the more mainstream LGBTQ establishments in Madison and interviewed other community members who identified as queer, trans, and lesbian. A consistent theme across my research and within my own experience was that the venues in Madison that claim to exist for LGBTQ people broadly are, in practice, primarily for gay men. Even then, my research participants informed me, these venues often end up as landing spots for bachelorette parties wishing to spice up their evenings by fetishizing some drag queens.
Such spaces were referenced over and over in my interviews for being explicitly trans-exclusive and upholding racist policies (for example, bans on hip-hop and R&B), in ways that made them inaccessible and inhospitable to many people who would otherwise want to participate in a queer event. A vivid example that comes to mind is when one of my interviewees described watching her then-partner and a friend, both transmasculine people, be physically thrown out of the men's bathroom by bouncers at one of the most prominent gay bars in Madison. Afterward, the manager of the venue half-apologized but insisted on upholding the club's binary bathroom policy, thus making the space explicitly inhospitable to trans and nonbinary people. In that same venue, I myself experienced sexist harassment and homophobia from straight men who had come to the venue intending to pick up women and were disappointed in my lack of interest.
Instances like these led the participants in my research to seek alternative events at which they could feel comfortable to dance or use the bathroom without as much fear of physical violence, homophobia, racism, or misogyny. Queer Pressure was the event to which many of them turned. It grew, in short, out of a very tangible lack of space for queerness and transness outside of the norm in Madison. Queer-exclusive parties like Queer Pressure, therefore, are not about some ridiculous and abstract form of gatekeeping around who can identify as queer and who cannot. As repeatedly stated by the organizers, anyone who identifies can attend, including, of course, bisexual people, along with those who are just beginning to explore gender and sexuality outside of normative bounds. Rather, these parties are about having, just for a moment, relief from the oppressive structures and social dynamics that materially shape our entire lives.
In our 2015 interview, Sarah Akawa, the Queer Pressure organizer referenced in Sitar's article, stated, "I want a space for people that don't have a space." Straight, cisgender partners of bisexual people have a space. They can go anywhere, without fear that the expression of their gender or their relationship will be met with violence. And, relatedly, the inconvenience of leaving a partner at home for one night every couple of months is not violence.
So, to answer the opening query of Sitar's article, no. Your cisgender, straight partner is not inherently entitled to Queer Pressure or any other queer exclusive spaces. To advocate for such an idea is to privilege the annoyance of separating from your partner for an evening over the relative safety and comfort of the many people who turn to such spaces for a brief respite from "the rest of the world."
Hana Masri is a PhD student currently living in Austin, Texas. She is a former Madison resident and a researcher/frequenter of queer spaces all over the U.S.